Finally, I am in Bosnia! For months I have been thinking about this trip, planning for it, and anxiously waiting for my internship placement. But now, I am officially living and working in Sarajevo for the summer! It doesn’t even seem real.
In some ways, it’s a major relief to actually be here. The week leading up to my departure was incredibly stressful. Finishing final papers, tying up loose ends with professors back in Colorado, and trying to enjoy the engagement party my mom threw for my fiance and I all while attempting to prepare for two and a half months abroad in another country wasn’t easy. Every single day was filled with scrambling, packing, making lists, unpacking, repacking, and buying last minute items I swore I would need. Little did I know that most of my essentials are actually available here in Sarajevo (they actually have Lush and Sephora).
On the plane ride here I read excerpts from Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell” in order to really understand what exactly I was stepping into. Her chapter on Bosnia spoke about an “exit tax” of nearly $1,000 that Serb forces had begun charging Muslims and Croats who were attempting to flee Sarajevo during the war. When I landed in Sarajevo, our hostel owner’s husband (an older man who is very sweet) picked me up from the airport. As we drove through the city, he mentioned that he had lived in London for part of the war. Curious, and remembering what I had read earlier, I asked him if he had to pay Serbian forces the “exit tax” I had just learned about. Immediately, he jumped into a defensive conversation about how the war affected both Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs in the same way, and that he had many Serbian friends that he love dearly. Although that wasn’t the exact answer I had been looking for, I quickly realized that some questions just shouldn’t be asked so casually. Lesson number one.
When I arrived at the hostel, I didn’t even bother to unpack. I set my things down and decided to explore the city along with everyone else. The location of our hostel is smack dab in the middle of Sarajevo, directly in between the famous bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Baščaršija, which is Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the city’s cultural and historical center. The city of Sarajevo reminds me of Istanbul in many ways, but it definitely has it’s own European flair. Most of the architecture is Austro-Hungarian, but there are plenty of buildings that are still standing from the Ottoman era. I love how the city perfectly blends “western” and “eastern” influences. One minute you find yourself walking down the street hearing the call to prayer from a 15th century mosque and the next minute you’re passing by a bar blasting techno music in the middle of the day. In this city, churches and mosques coexist without any visible tension. It’s refreshing to see given the current circumstances that exist elsewhere.
One thing that really surprised me was how modern Sarajevo is. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be so… European. I guess my version of Sarajevo was stuck in 1995. There are tons of trendy clothing stores, and the fashion is incredible. Girls here could probably give American girls a run for their money when it comes to style. Even the hijabs here are styled, decorated, and colorful. And everyone loves anything “designer.” So many knockoff sunglasses, bags, etc. for sale (and the prices are definitely better than NYC’s Chinatown). I literally got a pair of “Ray Bans” for 15 KM, which is about 7.5 EURO (like $8-10 US dollars). When I hold them up to my pair of authentic Ray Bans, you cannot even tell the difference. #Winning!
Although the food is a bit heavy (lots of bread and meat and cheese), I don’t mind it because it is delicious. It definitely is going to take some getting used to, though. Good salads are hard to find around here, but if you know the right places to go it’s definitely possible. Some of my roommates have started cooking in the hostel’s kitchen, which I think I am going to start doing once I get myself together and get some groceries (which are also super super cheap). It’s just so hard to get cooking when you can have a three course meal at a restaurant here for less than what it costs to cook.
On our first official day here, the group took a tour of the city. One thing we got to see was the “Tunnel of Hope,” which was built by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by Serbian forces, with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. Basically, this tunnel became the lifeline of the city during the siege. People, food, medicine, livestock, and even cars were smuggled through this tunnel. It was narrow and claustrophobic and incredibly uncomfortable to walk through (I only walked through a tiny part of it, too!). I cannot imagine how people walked through that tunnel for hundreds of meters. I guess in the middle of a war, walking through a tunnel like that is the least of anyone’s problems.
On Friday we took a day trip to the village of Lukomir, which is the most remote village in the entire country. THAT was a culture shock. The area itself is incredibly beautiful, and the people were so gracious and welcoming. Only two families live in the entire village, and they completely sustain themselves without hardly any contact to/from the outside world. The people there lead very simple, yet happy lives. Just being there for a few hours made me want to go home and purge my apartment of all of the useless crap I have. Material things do not equal happiness.
I really look forward to seeing more of the city, and even more of the countryside. Although my Bosnian isn’t amazing, I am practicing it every day. My internship at the Atlantic Initiative (a non-profit NGO supported by Bosnia’s NATO HQ) is honestly the perfect fit for me. My first assignment is researching gender-based violence in Bosnian’s armed forces (very appropriate if you know what I study). I’m really excited to see what’s in store for me here. I can’t wait to see what happens next.